We have discussed partnerships in our Dialogue on Native Business section several times in the past year. Many of them have dealt with alternative energy, mining, and forestry, and these partnerships are formed based on a natural resource on Native land that requires funding to develop, such as Running River energy. In this issue, we are looking at another form of partnership: the building of a shopping mall on Native land. It is a venture that needs advanced planning from and a solid business plan to form a partnership that will require funding in excess of a hundred million dollars.
The Westbank First Nation WFN) has opened two shopping centers in the last three years, Snyatan ( The Gathering Place) in 2011 and the Okanagan Lake Landing in 2013. Both projects were in the planning stages for several years, and Chief Robert Louie stated, “In the 1990’s, Westbank First Nation placed infrastructure development at the top of their priority list. It had been decided that building water and sewer lines, for instance, was necessary in order to foster development. Next was the establishment of an effective and efficient governance structure with the coming into force of the Westbank First Nation Self Government Act and the Westbank First Nation Constitution. After a couple decades of work, the framework for development was in place.”
The vision of building a shopping mall was formed by the band collectively and for practical reasons, according to Dan Brown, Manager of Planning and Development. “The West Bank First Nation has five reserves, two of which are bisected by Hwy 97, the main north-south transportation corridor in the region. With large traffic volume moving up and down the highway every day, WFN had the advantage of highway exposure for its retail developments. Between 2006 and 2009 the following well known tenants located on Westbank First Nation leased lands: Walmart, London Drugs, Canadian Tire, Home Depot, Superstore, Staples, Rexall, CIBC, Royal Bank, HBC, Marks Wearhouse, Sleep Country, and many others. Beginning in 2008, however, WFN began plans to build their own shopping centers . This entailed contributing community lands and entering into joint venture partnerships with two companies experienced in building and operating shopping centers.”
The Snayatan was the first WFN shopping centre to open its doors in November of 2011. The second WFN shopping centre, Okanagan lake Landing had been in the planning stages for several years” Dan Brown said, “but it was decided to time the development with the construction of a new highway interchange project in order to easily get motorists to and from the shops. The first phase at 125,000 sq. ft. is anchored by the very popular Landmark XTreme Cinema complex with eight theatres, including one with a three-story-high screen.”
The two shopping centres have been an important part of the Westbank First Nation’s success. “There are many benefits, including the expertise gained from putting together major joint venture partnerships, as well as learning the shopping centre business,” Chief Louie stated emphatically. “It gives WFN comfort also, knowing that they can successfully be a big player in the Okanagan Valley. Ongoing yearly proceeds are reinvested into other projects, allowing for continued growth and prosperity. Part of the income generated also goes back into the community, revitalizing its culture, language, and peoples.”
The importance of these partnerships and how they were selected and dealt with reflects a wisdom and maturity from the WFN Council and business group that should be an inspiration for other bands looking for a way to develop their own resources to achieve financial independence. “At first our membership wanted to fully fund and develop a retail mall project ourselves, but we felt we did not possess the necessary expertise at the time,” Chief Louie remembers. “In order to mitigate risk and increase our likelihood of success, we decided to bring partners on board. For the first shopping centre Snayatan, we brought in partners at a 40/60 ratio, with WFN carrying the 40%. For the next shopping centre, Okanagan Lake Landing, we negotiated a 50/50 partnership. In another generation, WFN feels we will have the expertise to fully fund and develop a similar project outselves.”
Because of intelligent planning and a pragmatic business sense, the West Band First Nation now has a total of approximately 1.3 million square feet of retail real estate with an assessed value of $1.2 billion. When asked if he had any advice for Native organizations looking to implement a similar business plan, Dan Brown gave this answer: “Work with the resources and location at hand. Compliment this with good governance and land management processes. If unable to provide the services solely, look to tie in with regional service providers. Most importantly, be creative and don’t be afraid to think big.”